Sunday Sit-Down: West Virginia Schools Superintendent James Phares

– West Virginia just passed its first significant piece of education reform in years. What do you see as the most important aspects of the legislation, and why?

Phares: I think all the components of the bill are fairly significant. If you look at reform in West Virginia, any one piece that stands by itself is probably the most significant reform piece that we’ve had in 20 years. For example, the calendar component. There have been multiple attempts to try to make some leeway so that counties would be able to get to 180 days of instruction – elimination of the ISE days, elimination of out-of-calendar days, certainly will help folks get there. That standing on its own is big. The hiring practice is a huge deal on its own. But when you look at the total of SB 359, when you look at the re-emphasis and the work that has to be done for … literacy at the third-grade level, if you look at the massive amount of work that has been done and we will continue to do with refocusing on career and technical education to get our students job-ready, career ready, college ready, it’s a huge undertaking. When you look at the restructuring of middle schools, when you look at the governance commission for taking a look at local school boards, when you really start laying it all down and looking at all the work that has been done … to go from the audit to the legislative action, there’s massive amounts of work already completed, but so much more to do. … The fact that we are re-purposing the department and going from a top-down management structure to a more localized structure is huge in this state.

– You’re a former county superintendent. What advantages do you see with this new model of education management?

Phares: I think it’s going to be huge, because they’re going to make decisions on hiring practices where they use seniority as a factor, but not the only factor. That’s going to empower the principals and the teachers in a school to participate in the hiring process by which they get a say in who the most highly qualified teacher is. That’s a huge piece in itself. Being able to set, within that 48-week window, the start and the end times, or to look at a balanced calendar – we’re not going to be making the determination of what’s best for Ohio County, or Brooke County, here in Charleston for their calendar. School systems and county boards are going to be able to make those decisions.

The decisions for the types of professional development … and when it’s going to be needed will be determined at the local level. … In conjunction with that, we’re really going to have to work with our local boards and our local superintendents to build leadership capacity to understand what they can do. I don’t know that everybody has a full realization (of the changes). The (legislation) is going to give schools and school systems the opportunity to do things that they’ve never had the opportunity to do before. …

There’s another dynamic, and that is the involvement of teacher organizations in decision making, the involvement of teachers in shared leadership at the county level. Some counties already are doing a great job with that, but they were barricaded in by certain things in code that only allowed them to go so far. They’re going to be able to stretch beyond those barriers to make decisions. The whole purpose for this is that as a teacher, as a principal, as a local county superintendent and now as a state superintendent, I’ve always felt the best place to make the decisions about what’s best for students is at the local level.

– What important steps has the state Board of Education taken during the past year to improve schools – and what steps do you anticipate during the coming year?

Phares: Number one, we don’t teach any student from Building 6 (where the state Department of Education is located in Charleston). The first major step that I think we have taken is within the repurposing of the department. Many people feel that the audit only talked about downsizing … for the state Department of Education. It really was about so much more. … It was about right-sizing and repurposing, changing the department’s attitude.

Here’s the best way I can sum it up: last year when I was a local superintendent I realized that the state department tells you what to do, they tell you when to do it, they tell you what resources you’re going to have, they tell you how to spend the resources and then they assess you. If you don’t meet the intended outcomes or expectations, then they hold you accountable for it. Think about that. They’re really assessing themselves because they’re controlling all the factors … and how they’re applied. My main thrust as the state superintendent when I came in Jan. 2 is that we’ve got to get from that type of top-down approach to saying listen, here’s what your expected outcomes are, now we want to give you the freedom … in order to make those outcomes come about. We want you to make decisions on how you spend your resources; we want you to make decisions about when you go to school; we want you to make the decisions on professional development that you’re putting in place. We don’t want to mandate that anymore. I think that’s the best way.

The other thing … and it’s part of service from the Department of Education, we want to be a service organizations that responds appropriately and quickly to the needs of counties when they ask questions. We’ve talked within our departments about changing our attitudes on the phones, changing our timelines about when we get back to people, and we’re trying to expedite that. Are we where I want to be yet? No. But we’ve been working on this for five months and we’ve seen some gains.

– Test results. West Virginia still lags behind the nation, on average, and many other states in some scores on The Nations Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, particularly in reading and math. Can you explain why we lag behind other states in NAEP scores, and what can we do about it?

Phares: We haven’t done well on NAEP. We’ve flatlined and digressed and I think the reason for that is because in early 2000, I feel like our testing patterns and some of the practices that we had in our secondary schools in particular, by being aligned with the Southern Regional Education Board, the High Schools at Work Assessment (and others,) we had a better feel for where we were and we could address it. The decline in recent years is No. 1, our own standardized testing wasn’t aligned to NAEP. No. 2, we weren’t paying attention as a state department or as local counties. No. 3, I feel like the transition from where we were in 2006 to where we are today is going to get us back on the road and between the lines. But you’ve got to remember, you don’t run off the road all at once with testing, it’s a gradual response. …

So what are we doing about it. First off, we are rebuilding our bridges with SREB at the middle and high school level so that we can get back into doing those practices in the classroom that are more NAEP-like. What we’ve done with our assessments on the WESTEST 2 is we’ve been embedding more … NAEP-like assessment questions so we can get a better feel. What you’re going to see when we get on the other side of our assessment realignment is that (the results) of our state tests are going to be more in line with NAEP.

… I’ve talked to our assessment and researchers (and asked) for a projection of what we’ve done so far to May 2013, where do you think NAEP scores are going to go if we continue on this path of putting more rigor on the assessments as well as putting more rigor into our next generation standards. They are projecting that at best we’ll get a 3 percent gain and at worst a 1 percent gain. A significant gain on the NAEP would be a 2 percent increase at all the grade levels in math and reading. That’s what our expected outcomes are, and if they’re not there, then we haven’t done the job.

– A number of West Virginia students will be starting their college careers in the next few months, and statistics show that about 40 percent of them will be required to take a remedial math or English class – essentially meaning they didn’t learn the required subject material in high school. If you boil that down, what that really means is that 40 percent of the top students in the state, the ones who go on to college, have to take a remedial class. How is the state addressing that?

Phares: Let’s talk about that fact right there. About 67 percent of all of our students go on to college, and of that 67 percent, all of them meet the minimum requirements for getting into college. … So when they go to college and all of a sudden they have to be in a remedial course – do we take the standards higher for getting into college? I’m thinking why would you go ahead and accept somebody and then all of a sudden have to test them to say well, you’re not quite ready yet.

I’m going to give you a true story here, this happened to us at Fairmont State when I was in Marion County. Dan Bradley (former president at Fairmont State University) called with this very same scenario … in math. He said what can we do, and I said Dan, I think we need to sit down and talk about it. I said I think you need to bring your math teachers and I’ll bring my math teachers, and we’ll sit down and talk about a plan because a lot of these kids were taking college-level courses their senior year, and the same kids were having to take a remediation course when they got to college. It didn’t make sense.

We show up on the meeting day and I’ve got all my teachers there. President Bradley walks in and says well, we’re ready to start the meeting. I said well Dan, none of your teachers are here and he says yes they are, they’re right here. What I didn’t realize is his math teachers were saying (the students) weren’t coming prepared, they were my math teachers for the senior-level courses. What’s wrong with that picture?

What we started doing was the remedial classes rather than the college-prep classes in their senior year. … At the 11th grade next year, our assessments are going to tell us if they’re ready for college or not, and if they’re not, we’re putting them in the remedial classes in their senior year so they will have that remedial credit before they go on.

Remedial classes are very expensive at the college level. … More importantly, the data shows that if (a student) is taking one or more remedial courses, their potential for finishing college is diminished greatly. Look at the college completion rates. Remedial courses are not working as an indicator for us and it most certainly is not working in getting kids their college degree.

… The other thing is we don’t always have a good indication of who’s ready to go to college. We always don’t have a good indication of what happens to our seniors after they go to school. The database we’re putting together, P20, which will have data for students from preschool all the way until they enter the work force, 20 years, … will track those students. What will that do for high school principals? They can look into how the kids are performing at their freshmen and sophomore years, and begin to see and understand what they have to do as far as their curriculum and their readiness preparation for these kids. It will allow colleges to see warning signs as early as sophomore or freshmen year as to how kids are matriculating through the process.

– We’ve heard plenty over the past few years about the correlation between poverty and poor student achievement. Can you explain what’s being done to combat that problem?

Phares: The very first presentation I gave back in January to the joint Senate and House education committees was that I hope that we can go from debate to discussion to dialogue, and have a full understanding that we’ve got an ever-increasing number of our students who are coming to school, walking down the hallways hand-in-hand with abject poverty, sexual abuse, mental abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, neglect situations, who are living in extended families. It’s a problem. There’s not a teacher that you could interview who hasn’t gone out and had to deal with students who are coming to school with these types of issues that will tell you that, Oh, we can fix that in a day. We can’t fix it in 180 days because we get them for about six hours and then they’re at home. Is every child abused, is every child hungry? No. But it does become problematic for the entire student population because some of the behaviors of other manifestations of this do interrupt the regular school setting.

I’m proud to be a public educator because we accept them all. We’re the only institution in the world that continues to do that. … In the past 20 years we’ve lost about 100,000 students. Our personnel, though, is about the same. A lot of the pickup in personnel … is for support services – more special education teachers, counselors, social workers, behavior specialists – all those come hand-in-hand with a full, thorough and efficient system of education when you’re dealing with an ever-increasing population of students who are affected by poverty, abuse or neglect. It’s something we have to deal with day to day. Does it have a diminishing return on student achievement? Of course it does.

… As far as parent involvement is concerned, we’ll continue our support of after-school programs, we’ll continue our support particularly of early childhood education … because it will be earlier that we can get them to read. … People don’t understand the power the simple act of a parent reading to a child has for improving your child’s ability to read.

– Students dropping out of high school continues to be an issue in West Virginia and across the nation. What can the state Department of Education do to address the dropout issue?

Phares: First of all, by working closely with the Supreme Court. … We have dropout prevention grants that fortunately we’re able to keep in place this year and shield from department cuts thanks to the work of predominantly Sen. Erik Wells and Sen. Bob Plymale and Delegate Mary Poling and the governor’s office. The dropout rate always starts with truancy. A student at the first, second or third grade that has no health problems, who misses 30 days of school, it’s not the student’s fault. You have to go straight to the parents and say you’ve got to get them to school. Some of the things that have happened all over the state, from Mercer County, Nicholas County, Taylor County with Judge Allan Moats, have taken concerted efforts to stop going straight to the magistrate and (instead) bringing (parents) to the circuit court.

Another component is with an agreement with DHHR, the Department of Education and local school systems, we can now use educational neglect as a cause to take to circuit court and say, this parent needs to be addressed because they are educationally neglecting their child’s future. That memorandum of understanding is being hammered out and it will be signed.

All of this, as it builds up and they’re truant, they become dropouts, they become citizens without anything other than the minimal basic skills, sometimes not even that, they are costly at the other end because you’re looking at a high percentage of them that become incarcerated or develop behaviors that need rehabilitation. … They become a financial burden on the state in general. Again, it’s not separate and unrelated parts. The prison reform bill, the other end of that is to use their public school experience to become productive citizens, productive workers, productive students – it all fits together and it’s all important.

– Some school districts have complained about reductions in federal funding. What do you know about that? Specifically, how much is federal support for West Virginia schools being cut? Is there any possibility of restoring it?

Phares: In each school system, in their federal program areas, I think it’s going to be an average of a 5.2 percent cut. … There are other federal programs … that are affecting school districts in counties with large (tracts) of federal forestland, and that’s the payment in lieu of tax money. There’s a formula where they have to return dollars from this year. Randolph County, Pocahontas County, Tucker County, Greenbrier County (and others) – wherever there’s a federal forest, they’re impacted. The payment in lieu of taxes, I think, over the next 10 years will probably disappear altogether. We’ve been fighting that. The federal government instituted the payment in lieu of taxes back in 1905. … In Randolph County, it comes out to about $472,000 a year.

– What about state aid to county school districts? Is it relatively stable or are across-the-board cuts in progress or envisioned?

Phares: Public education is constitutionally protected as the last resort for cuts. Student enrollment, if it continues to dwindle, there will continue to be those forces that will want to open up the state funding formula and make adjustments. The problem is the enrollment trends are going one way while the requirements that are in both state and federal code are forcing us to keep personnel … at a certain level. At some particular point in time something has to give, either the legislative restrictions or more funding.

– You’re still relatively new in the position of state superintendent of schools. What surprises – both pleasant and unpleasant – have you encountered during your first five months in the office?

Phares: A pleasant surprise – and I can’t say it was a surprise more than a pleasant validation – is that the overall professional ability of the department’s staff members.

– Do you feel the staffers here came under fire because of the audit?

Phares: It’s not just the audit – it’s the whole transition. Any time a school or a school system or a department comes under leadership transition, if it’s sudden and abrupt, they go to the lowest level of Maslow’s heirarchy. How does that manifest itself in layman’s terms? Everybody’s worried about their job. Everybody interpreted that the audit called for heads to roll and positions to be cut. They brought somebody in who’s a change agent. … It was important for me to find out at what professional capacity these folks could be considered. … That was the easy part. What was hard was getting them all mobilized to say we’ve got a whole new dynamic here. We’ve got people playing different roles. I was pleasantly validated. …

– How about unpleasant?

Phares: Unpleasant was I didn’t have a full understanding of how odd this job is. There’s a lot of dynamics that you have to consider on a day-to-day basis. When you’re a local superintendent you’ve got one boss, and that’s your board. But here, you’ve got many bosses. It manifests itself in the state board, in the governor, in legislative chairs … you’re dealing with that plus the level of special interests and the level of influence, it was unpleasant because I did not have previous experience in spinning that many plates. I’ve been known as somebody who can spin a lot of plates at one time, but that was odd. I don’t know that it was unpleasant, but I know this: it’s made me a stronger person because I’ve had to understand varying viewpoints.